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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things.”
— Vatican II Council

Meatless Fridays • Were We Taught Correctly?
published 26 November 2016 by Jeff Ostrowski

625 sacrific HE RESULTS from asking questions here are often remarkably helpful. For example, a few years ago, I used our blog to ask an important question about USA Holy Days. Several priests responded via email, providing the correct answer. 1 Today, I have a question regarding meatless Fridays outside of Lent.

For as long as I can remember, my family has given up meat every Friday of the year. I was taught that current law allows meat consumption on Fridays outside of Lent if one “substitutes” another penance. As a young child, I remembering asking an ICRSS-trained cleric about this. He assured me it’s a grave sin to not do some form penance on all Fridays, except for Solemnities.

But was he correct?

The 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with this—beginning with paragraph 1250—but I’ve been unable to find any USCCB statement after 1983 which “determines more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substituting other forms of penance.” Nor have I discovered a USCCB statement addressing Lenten weekdays, which (according to §1250) are also penitential days. The general consensus is that a 1966 statement by the USA bishops applies to Fridays outside Lent, but arguments for such an application are problematic, since the new code would not appear for another 17 years. {Update: Matt Newsome sent this answer.}

NOW LET’S TACKLE the heart of the matter. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the 1966 statement applies. Nothing in the 1966 Statement talks about a mandatory penance on Friday. Indeed, a careful reading makes it difficult to assert that an obligation to penance is preserved by the 1966 document:

23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.

Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.

We emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that no scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point.

26. Perhaps we should warn those who decide to keep the Friday abstinence for reasons of personal piety and special love that they must not pass judgment on those who elect to substitute other penitential observances.

I’m not a priest, but God gave us intelligence, right? A normal reading of the full 1966 document seems to indicate something like:

“We used to celebrate Friday by mandatory abstinence. Now we do it a different way: by being urged to do penance.”

Some argue that the 1966 statement talks about Fridays as a “day of penance” and claim an obligation still remains. But this argument seems invalid, because the same document also refers to Lenten weekdays as “penitential days.” Colin B. Donovan says that American Catholics must perform penance on all Fridays, but inexplicably ignores the weekdays of Lent.

I find this question vexing. Moreover, we must follow the law as it stands—not what we “feel” the law might “imply.” Bishop Boyea’s letter (BELOW) seems to contradict the cleric who said doing nothing on Fridays outside Lent constitutes grave matter.

629 Bishop Earl Boyea LANSING The following was published in May of 2013 by the Most Rev. Earl Boyea (Bishop of Lansing, Michigan):

S THIS YEAR OF PRAYER continues, my heart is encouraged by the many signs of the Spirit’s work among us. Changes great and small are taking place. Among the many stirrings in the hearts of the faithful, I sense an increased desire to renew the Church’s ancient practice of year-round Friday abstinence from meat. Allow me to share a little history about this practice.

In the days before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics in good health abstained from meat on Fridays throughout the year. This sign of Catholic identity was understood and respected even by non-Catholics. Ever wonder why McDonald’s decided in 1962 to put a piece of fish into a hamburger bun?

Friday abstinence has ancient roots. The 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia credibly documents the practice all the way back to “the dawn of Christianity.” That same source also indicates that failure to abstain was viewed as grave (mortal) sin.

The American bishops addressed this practice after the council. They knew that abstinence from meat was, for many individuals, no hardship at all. Some persons eat meat rarely or never, and many others find a seafood dinner to be every bit as appetizing a meal as a meat dish. Further, one of the goals of the council was to encourage individual Catholics to grow in personal spirituality and responsibility. It was thought in those days that Catholics would benefit from forms of penance that best fit the personal circumstances of each individual.

In November 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (today’s USCCB), issued its Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. This document covered a wide range of topics related to penitential practices. About halfway through, the bishops addressed the matter of Friday abstinence. The bishops stated that the practice of abstaining from meat would no longer be binding under pain of sin. American Catholics were asked to continue abstaining from meat, or to find an alternative form of personal penance. The bishops wrote, “Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday…we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”

We know what happened next. The great majority of American Catholics began eating meat on Fridays, and have continued doing so for almost five decades.

This rejection of Friday abstinence and—let’s be honest—the wholesale failure to substitute an alternative penitential practice fail to honor either the spirit of the American bishops’ 1966 statement or even Christ’s call to a life of penance.

As an increasing number of persons are becoming aware, the 1983 Code of Canon Law provides in canon 1251 that “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” Canon 1253 permits a national conference of bishops to “determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.” It is the latter provision that recognizes the 1966 decision by the American bishops.

The sense of the faithful—the sensus fidelium—can sometimes be hard to gauge with exactitude. The hearts of many Catholics are moving toward a resumption of Friday abstinence. It is hard to foresee that it would ever again be required on pain of sin, but rather it would be restored in joy as the great sign of Catholic unity that it has been for most of the centuries since apostolic times.

In Baltimore last November, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB, asked a new generation of American bishops to prayerfully consider “re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.” Even without further action by the USCCB, this address has been a source of great joy for many Catholics all over this country.

Many Catholics haven’t eaten meat on Fridays for years. Some never have. I myself am trying to change my own habits in this regard. This is sometimes difficult, especially when eating at other’s homes. Yet, it is pulling my mind more and more to the goodness of that Friday when Christ died on his cross for you and me. As we await the upcoming discussion by the American bishops, let’s each reflect on how best to make Friday a day of penance.

The celebrations of Holy Week and Easter were powerful, moving and Spirit-blessed again this year. Among the many joys of those days is the gathering of the Diocese in St. Mary Cathedral on the morning of Holy Thursday for the Chrism Mass. Looking out over a packed church, filled with priests, deacons, religious and laypersons of all ages, I found myself thanking God for the privilege of serving this wonderful diocese. And I was mindful that, just a year ago, I issued my pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord.

In that letter, I wrote of the Household of Faith, the Lost Sheep and those in the Court of the Gentiles. For all these persons, but initially focusing particularly on our own Catholic faithful, I asked for a Year of Prayer. All across our Diocese, the response has been generous, and we are already seeing the fruits of the Spirit in our parish communities.

Shortly before Holy Week, we had a midweek gathering of the men and women who are the chairs of our parish pastoral councils. The evening was spent sharing experiences, perspectives, and hopes for the months to come. It was exciting to see how the Spirit’s work, effective in our many parishes, is taking such diverse forms.

These preliminary steps are being bolstered by other important initiatives. We have hired a director of New Evangelization, Craig Pohl. Our budget process and our internal staff deliberations are now structured to keep evangelization always before our eyes. We have had some good conversations about the real-world mechanics of spreading the good news in a digital age, and about the real-world obstacles, including limited parish resources and a belligerently toxic popular culture. In the months to come, we will continue to explore means – both familiar and developing – for introducing a confused and downcast world to the Son of God.

But always we must continue to understand the primary importance of first getting our own house in order. I am pleased to hear, from priests all over the Diocese, that Catholics are returning in numbers to confession. In some parishes, we face the happy challenge of long lines on multiple days. Confession and prayer. Prayer and confession. On our knees is how we can prepare for the work of discipleship.

The Spirit is at work all around us. He found Pope Francis in Buenos Aires, and called him to do a great work. He found you and me, and called us to do another part of his work. With courage, humility and hope, let us continue to pray for the Spirit’s outpouring of grace, here in the Diocese of Lansing.

The words of Cardinal Dolan are interesting, since he says Friday is not a particular day of penance. By the way, I’m told Canon law has another rule that goes something like: “A law universally not enforced ceases to be binding.” But let’s not open up that can of worms!

A discussion about this post is underway.


1   The question had to do with certain USA Holy Days of Obligation falling on a Saturday or Monday, where the USCCB says “the obligation to attend Mass is abrogated.” Specifically, I wanted to know whether the obligation to abstain from work was also abrogated. It turns out Canon law says that when a greater obligation is removed, the lesser one also is removed.